Jacob Burckhardt: History as Education and Culture
In The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy and The
Greeks and Greek Civilization, Jacob Burckhardt developed a historiographic
method that incorporated a criticism of Hegelian philosophy and his
own background as an observer of social change in nineteenth-century
Europe. His method, while critical of social problems and humanistic
in theme, nonetheless, advocated a uniquely conservative doctrine. Simultaneously
attacking Prussian autocracy and the spirit of liberal revolutionaries,
Burckhardt looked to both his Swiss background and antiquity to counter
what he believed to be the undoing of Europe. Furthermore, by examining
the relation of contemporary culture to the cultures of the past, he
developed a view of history that sought to benefit modern peoples, cultures,
and governments. Knowledge of history, in Burckhardt's estimation, formed
the very identities and essences of the peoples of Europe. Forgetting
the past would only lead to disaster.
Chronologically, the historical works of Jacob Burckhardt lie near
the end of the nineteenth century. He lived and worked during final
decades of a century that saw European states transformed violently
from agricultural states to industrial states employing technology unheard
of before the 1800s. Coincident with the massive political and technological
changes, European society changed dramatically. The industrial working
class became, for the first time, a significant portion of the population
in Western Europe. Furthermore, the French revolution of 1789 set the
tone for the struggles between orthodoxy and liberal thought that would
dominate European society for the next one hundred years.
Burckhardt recognized the dramatic changes that occurred in European
society during his lifetime. He responded to them, not by advocating
direct political change like many of his contemporaries, but by presenting
the traditions of European culture as the highest achievements of mankind.
He hoped that by educating a wide segment of the public, he could demonstrate
the connections between the Europe of his day and its predecessors.
Moreover, through giving the public a sense of the continuity of human
culture, he hoped to warn of the dangers inherent in abandoning traditional
culture for the sake of revolution.
While most of Burckhardt's writings contained elements of his culturally
oriented view of history, he expressed his thoughts most clearly in
The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy and The Greeks
and Greek Civilization. Both works argued for a history of civilization
focusing on the activities and thoughts